Book Review: Against God and Nature, by Thomas McCall
Thomas McCall, Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin. Crossway, 2019. 442 pages.
Thomas H. McCall is currently professor of theology and scholar-in-residence at Asbury University. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as professor of biblical and systematic theology and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. He is the author and coauthor of several books and is specifically known for his work in analytic theology. In this work of systematic theology, McCall considers the important yet often neglected doctrine of sin in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.
What makes this book important is its subject matter. In Scripture and theology there is an organic relationship between the nature of the human problem and its solution in our Lord Jesus Christ. As Augustine reminded us many years ago, “If man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come.” By linking a biblical view of our plight with its solution, Augustine rightly argued for an inseparable relationship between the doctrines of sin, Christ, and salvation. Yet, Augustine was not the first to speak of this relationship; he was simply following the apostle Paul and the Bible’s entire storyline. In Romans 5:12–21 Paul reminds us of the epochal importance of the two most significant individuals in history—Adam and Christ—and the consequences of each of their actions, thus making this organic connection explicit: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Given this inseparable relationship, an undeniable theological truth follows: If we fail to grasp the nature of our problem before God, we will inevitably misunderstand its radical solution in Christ Jesus.
A TOUR OF THE BOOK
McCall’s investigation of the doctrine of sin—what sin is, its nature, universality, consequences, and God’s judgment of it—is foundational to grasping its solution in Christ and the nature of the gospel. In chapter 1, McCall defines sin as “whatever is opposed to God’s will, as that will reflects God’s holy character and as that will is expressed by God’s commands. Sin is fundamentally opposed to nature and reason, and it is ultimately opposed to God” (21). Later in chapter 8, McCall concludes by adding that “[t]he results of sin are truly catastrophic. Sin wreaks havoc on our relationships with God, one another, and the rest of creation. It is universal in human history and manifests itself in various cultural expressions. Sin is rebellion against our Lord and treason against our Creator—and it is our fault. It wrecks human lives and leaves us vulnerable; apart from the grace that we so readily reject, it utterly destroys us” (379). Between this opening definition of sin and the final summary of sin’s consequences, McCall moves from the biblical data on sin to a systematic discussion of sin’s origin, transmission, and disastrous results.
In chapter 2, McCall discusses the Scriptural data on sin by thinking through biblical words for sin and giving an overview of sin from Genesis to Revelation. He summarizes the biblical data by developing several overarching themes: the royal-legal (sin as before God and thus lawlessness and rebellion); familial (sin as the fracturing of the familial bond); nuptial (sin as spiritual adultery and infidelity); and ultimately sin as idolatry.
In chapter 3, McCall considers the origin of sin in the human and angelic realm by walking through the creation-fall narrative (Gen. 1–3). Unpacking sin’s origin, McCall works through a number of options he considers illegitimate (e.g., cosmic dualism and God as the author of sin). He concludes that the best explanation for the origin of sin is the abuse of human and angelic libertarian freedom. Already in this chapter, we begin to see the author’s Arminian theology at work and the difficulty of affirming a robust dual agency in relation to sin’s origin.
In chapter 4, McCall discusses the crucial issue of the transmission of sin from Adam to the human race. McCall nicely lays out the various interpretations of “original sin” and then tests these views in light of Romans 5:12–21. Overall, McCall’s description of the views is helpful, but his conclusion is meagre. He concludes that Romans 5 only rules out Pelagianism and a denial of a historic Adam, but it is underdetermined regarding the major views of original sin—realism, federalism, and corruption-only. For McCall, Romans 5 cannot answer which view is correct; instead, we must answer the question on larger theological grounds. He opts for an Arminian corruption-only view. He rejects federalism since he thinks it flounders on the issue of “legal fiction/alien guilt,” and its inability to uphold human responsibility (libertarian freedom).
In chapter 5, McCall discusses important topics such as the nature of sin (sin as contrary to nature, a privation of the good, and contrary to reason and God) along with various categories of sin (e.g., sins of commission and omission, degrees of sin, intentional and unintentional sins, mortal and venial sins, remissible and irremissible sins, the seven deadly sins, and individual sins vs. social, structural, and systemic sins).
In chapter 6, he considers the consequences of sin and a variety of topics associated with it. Drawing on helpful insights from historical theology, McCall discusses the corruption and enslavement of sin, total depravity, and the need for God to act in grace to redeem us. For McCall, however, God’s initiating grace is prevenient and not effectual, which entails that God enables all people to respond by the exercise of their freedom. He also reasons that sin results in our spiritual and physical death but maintains that this does not entail that there was no death in the world prior to Adam’s sin—a view that aligns with his commitment to an old earth view of creation.
McCall concludes chapter 6 by reflecting on the crucial subject of God’s wrath and love in relation to sin. He rightly argues that God’s wrath against sin is the expression of his holy love; thankfully, God will not overlook our sin. Yet, McCall takes issue with theologians like John Stott who speak of God’s holy love and wrath “in tension,” which is only resolved in the cross. McCall’s discussion is helpful but misguided. He rightly argues that God’s attributes are not in competition with each other, but he fails to grasp what Stott means. Stott speaks of a “tension” not because God’s attributes are competing with each other but because the God of holy love, in choosing to save us, cannot deny himself. Instead, for God to justify us, he must meet his own righteous demand against us, which requires a penal substitutionary view of the cross.
In chapter 7, McCall turns to the solution to the problem of sin. He first wrestles with the relationship between divine providence and human sin and rightly affirms God’s goodness and human responsibility for sin. Yet, after noting dual agency in Scripture—God plans and acts in everything for good and we also act but are responsible for sin and evil (e.g., Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23–24; 4:27–32)—McCall reduces God’s sovereignty on account of human freedom. He argues that God sustains his fallen creatures and is gracious to them, but due to our libertarian freedom, God’s sovereignty is limited. We see the consequences of his Arminian view of providence in his discussion of sin and prevenient grace. For McCall, God acts in prevenient grace (beforehand to all people), but not efficaciously. Strangely, he identifies his Arminian concept of prevenient grace with Augustine and Aquinas, which is mistaken. No doubt, Augustine and Aquinas believed in prevenient grace but not in the same way as McCall. After all, they strongly affirmed God’s effectual grace to guarantee that a sinner is brought from death to life. But McCall rejects effectual grace and opts for God’s prevenient, universal grace given to all people thus enabling them to repent and believe but which guarantees the salvation of no one. In support of his view, he appeals to the standard texts—John 1:9 and Titus 2:11—which, in truth, offer little biblical warrant for this view.
McCall then turns to a short discussion of justification, regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. In regard to justification he rightly affirms the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer along with the full payment of our sin in Christ’s cross. Yet, as I will note below, I wonder how his rejection of federalism fits with his acceptance of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. In his discussion of regeneration and conversion, he rightly notes that the Spirit’s work is to bring new life to sinners, but given his view of prevenient grace, he has to affirm that God’s saving grace is resistible and not efficacious.
In chapter 8, McCall concludes the book by summarizing some of the main points and then, in an important appendix, he discusses the historicity of Adam. Thankfully, unlike so many today, McCall acknowledges that Scripture demands that we affirm a historic Adam and fall. After clarifying the challenge from current evolutionary biology, he offers some possible ways that science and Scripture can be reconciled on this point.
A WORD OF APPRECIATION AND A FEW POINTS OF CRITICISM
In terms of the overall value of the book, there is much to commend for pastors, teachers, and church members. Against God and Nature is the first comprehensive book on the doctrine of sin in many years, and as such, it’s an excellent resource. McCall rightly captures the hideous nature of sin. Indeed, sin is so heinous that it requires nothing less than the triune God to act to redeem us. In addition, probably the most helpful feature of the book is McCall’s discussion of the disastrous effects of sin in relation to God, others, and the world. Sin leaves nothing untouched, and this point the church must never forget. In addition, McCall offers valuable insights from historical theology that allow us to see how the church has wrestled with the doctrine of sin.
However, I also offer three points of hesitation.
First, although the book covers a lot of biblical data, it often fails to set the data within the Bible’s own categories and within its covenantal structure. Some of McCall’s arguments do not fully capture the biblical teaching. For example, his discussion of sin’s transmission from Adam to us is divorced from Adam as our covenant head. McCall thus neglects the strong obedience theme that runs from Adam to Christ, Adam as our legal representative, and the imputation of Adam’s guilt to us. As a result, when McCall discusses Romans 5, he does so divorced from the Bible’s covenantal framework which is why he misses the emphasis on Adam’s one sin that results in our legal condemnation. In Scripture, Adam is more than the first man; he is also our legal representative so that by his one act of disobedience, we are guilty and corrupted.
This failure to locate Adam in the Bible’s covenantal structures is also evident in his discussion of Christ. McCall approvingly quotes the Westminster Confession regarding the twofold grace of justification, namely the imputation of Christ’s obedience to us, and the full payment of our sin. But it is very difficult to make sense of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness without a corresponding imputation of sin and guilt in Adam. In other words, the Bible’s view of justification only makes sense when you first think of Adam as our covenant, legal head, which Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection remedies—the precise point of Romans 5:12–21. Yet, in McCall’s hands, Romans 5 cannot resolve the question of the transmission of sin since it leaves the issue underdetermined. But Romans 5 only leaves the issue underdetermined if you remove the text from the Bible’s unfolding covenantal storyline. The bottom line is this: what Against God and Nature needs is a more consistent discussion of the biblical data on sin within the Bible’s own structures, categories, and covenantal story.
Second, although the book discusses well the hideous nature of our sin, it does not go far enough. For example, McCall affirms that in Adam, humans come into the world corrupt and totally depraved. In this regard, he affirms much of Augustinian-Reformed theology. His reliance on prevenient grace, however, weakens the full effect of sin on us. God’s initiatory, prevenient grace does not merely make all people able to respond to God by the exercise of their freedom. Instead, Scripture teaches—along with Augustine, Aquinas, and the Reformed tradition—our sin is so bad that apart from God’s effectual grace, we remain dead in our sins, unwilling and unable to respond to God. No doubt, McCall affirms something similar since he embraces the doctrine of total depravity, yet by denying the reality of the need for God’s sovereign effectual grace, he has underestimated the full effects of sin on us.
Third, although a major strength of the book is its discussion of a variety of viewpoints, both ancient and contemporary, McCall’s appeal to various people outside of orthodoxy to buttress his points is often unhelpful. For example, in chapter 5, McCall has an important discussion of sin as more than merely individual but also social, structural, and systemic (258–270). This discussion is often neglected in our treatment of sin, so I am thankful he chose to include it. At the same time, most of the people he employs to make his case are liberation and feminist theologians who do not mean by sin what Scripture means by sin. What these theologians mean by sin, injustice, and evil is filtered through an “extratextual” grid outside of Scripture so that their diagnosis of the problem of sin, let alone their solution, is less than what Scripture affirms. Instead of looking at our society through a consistently biblical lens, McCall opts to rely on those who cannot see sin for what it truly is due to their rejection of Scripture’s teaching in its own framework, categories, and structures. In my view, this leads to an inconsistent methodology that will weaken our sense of the seriousness of sin and its glorious, gracious solution in Christ alone.
With those points of hesitation noted, I am thankful for McCall’s work on this critical doctrine. The doctrine of sin in all of its biblical and theological dimensions must be addressed. In fact, unless we do so within the biblical categories and structures, the hideous nature of sin will not be seen for what it truly is. Sin has all kinds of horizontal consequences. But ultimately, it leaves us dead in our trespasses before God. What we need, then, is more than prevenient grace to make it possible for all to be saved by the exercise of our will. Instead, we need the triune God to act in sovereign grace from beginning to end: we need not only the divine plan to redeem, but the execution of that plan which requires God’s effectual grace to make us alive by the Spirit who unites us to Christ, who alone can save.